Warnings: Spoilers for S1 and S2
Disclaimer: All recognizable people, places, and events are property of Anthony Zuiker, Jerry Bruckheimer, CBS, and Alliance-Atlantis. No infringement is intended, and no profit is being made. For entertainment only.
A/N: Originally written for the lyric_ficathon challenge. This fic is now complete. Thank you to everyone who took the time to read.
Part I Part II Part III
Sister, I miss you.-"Sister"--The Nixons
Flack was still chasing his ghost two weeks later when Danny spotted him at Sullivan's. He was hunched on a bar stool, with his elbows propped on the bar and the tongue of his rumpled tie lolling disconsolately near the lip of his stein. He was thinner and gaunter than ever, and he curled both hands around the glass as though it were anchoring him to the world of the upright.
Flack hadn't spoken to him since he'd broken his nose, but Danny slid onto the stool beside him and ordered a longneck with an upraised finger. "You look like shit," he said mildly.
Flack spared him a sidelong glance. "I ain't got nothin' to say to you, Messer," he grunted, and took a large gulp of ale.
"That's fine. Don't change the fact that you look like shit."
Flack snorted and lifted his stein to his mouth again. The wrist protruding from the sleeve of his coat was spindly and pale, and Danny was sure that if he touched it, it would be hard and cool as mausoleum marble.
"Have you eaten anything today?" he demanded.
Flack's eyes narrowed. "Not that it's any of your fuckin' business, but yeah." He scowled at the big-screen TV above the bar, whereupon Dan Patrick was demonizing George Steinbrenner with solemn glee. "Fuckin' jackoff," he muttered sullenly into his ale.
Danny wasn't sure if he meant Patrick or him, but he pressed on. "What was it?" he prodded.
"What was what? What I ate? An egg-salad sandwich from the deli over on 23rd. Had a pickle, too. Wasn't supposed to have the pickle for another week or so, but fuck the doctor. I'm tired of fuckin' baby food. The fuckin' cashier at the grocery store must think I'm some kind of pervert, comin' up to her lane with nothin' but Gerber and applesauce and chocolate puddin."
"Did you keep it down?" Danny asked shrewdly.
"Fuck you, Messer," he snapped, but he refused to meet his gaze.
"'S what I thought. Listen, Flack, if you're havin' complications, you need to-," he began, but Flack cut him off in mid-sentence with a ruthless horizontal chop of his hand.
"What I fuckin' need," he hissed, "is for you and everybody else to stay outta my personal business and let me do my goddamned job. Since the day I got back, everybody's been wringin' their hands and walkin' on eggshells and breathin' down my neck, waitin' for me to fall apart. Then this mornin', I get wind that they're thinkin' of assignin' another detective to you nerds 'cause they think I can't pull my weight anymore. It's bullshit. Bullshit." He pounded on the bar with his palm. "Fuck 'em," he said bitterly, and drained his stein in three long swallows. He signaled for another.
"I ain't sayin' you can't pull your weight Danny protested. "I'm just sayin' maybe you oughta keep your doctor informed of what's goin' on with you. I've been noticin' you rubbin' your side all the time."
Flack scowled at him. "I don't need no more fuckin' doctors. I'm through lettin' 'em root around in my guts and head like a goddamn rummage sale." He held out his hand to stop the refilled stein as it slid down the bar.
"Flack, I think-,"
"I don't give a fuck what you think, Messer," he snapped. "I stopped givin' a shit about that at about 3:45 in the afternoon two weeks ago. So go fuck yourself and get outta my face. You know what? Forget it. I'll leave. 'Less you think I'm incapable of crossin' the room by myself."
With that, Flack slipped off the stool and made his way to a booth in the far corner. Halfway there, his hand stole to his side and began to knead in restless circles. He slipped into the booth with a wince and a grimace, set his drink on the table, and rested his head against the dirty, glass window of the bar. His back was to the mounted television set, and he looked at the passing cars and pedestrians beyond the pane with exhausted disinterest.
Danny made no move to follow him. Flack was too raw, and if he pushed him too hard, their fellow officers would be taking them in for drunk and disorderly. Even at this distance, he could see the tension in him, the endless current of sour adrenaline that had been coursing through his bloodstream since his first day back on the job. It was in the restless twitch of his fingers around the molded glass of the stein handle and the working of his jaw muscles as he ground his teeth. The teeth-grinding was a new habit since the explosion. Mac had done it, too, for a while, but his had stopped after Flack was released from the hospital. Flack's had only gotten worse, and Danny could have told him that therein lay the road to dental ruin.
He had started grinding his own teeth when he was four. It was a family trait, he supposed, because Louie had done it, too, and sometimes when Pop's tirades were exceptionally bad, he and Louie would sit on the stoop with a deck of cards and grind in tandem, the sound a subtle, scraping vibration in the skin of his jaw and the tender meat of his gums. Sometimes, it would last for hours as the sun sank behind the buildings like a truculent, bloodshot eye, and Louie would laugh and slap a dog-eared card onto the discard pile and say, "Roll dem bones, Danny boy. Roll dem bones."
The grinding made little difference on his milk teeth, which began their exodus from his bodily temple when he was six. They earned him fifty cents underneath his pillow every time, though later, when the repository of unexpected riches was down to the final few precious bits of enamel, he'd wondered if he might have gotten more had he not worn them to preternatural smoothness. It was a moot speculation, however, since the last of his childhood currency had tumbled onto the sidewalk one sweltering afternoon with the portentous click of rolling dice.
Roll dem bones, Danny boy, he'd thought, and he'd picked it up and slipped it into the pocket of his jeans. The next morning, there'd been fifty cents underneath his pillow and the inexplicable smell of his mother's perfume, and the tooth fairy had never come again.
The grinding became a problem with the advent of his permanent teeth. A big one, to the tune of three fillings, a root canal, and a crown by the time he was fifteen. His mother implored both him and Louie to stop in the name of the strained family finances, and his dentist had turned a blissfully blind eye to the problem in the same name. Louie left home when Danny was seventeen, and three more fillings followed by Christmas. His exasperated father had dubbed his mouth the "money pit."
Things had gotten better for a while after he'd left home after high school. Sure, he'd nearly starved that first year of college, washing dishes at a greasy spoon and being so hungry that the scraps on the plate tempted him, but there was no more yelling in the middle of the night, and no more gaggle of overweight men in ill-fitting suits gathered around the kitchen table at three in the morning, reeking of cigar smoke and expensive silk. Only two minor fillings those years, and sometimes he went whole weeks without grinding.
Then the first year of Academy, and all progress had been lost. He'd obsessed over leash laws and garbage regulations for the State and city of New York, studying until the wee hours of the morning and keeping himself awake by the sliding grate of enamel on enamel. He ground his way through exam reviews and exams themselves, and while his pencils remained unmarred by bite marks, his mouth was a mess. The week before graduation, a molar had abscessed in the middle of the night, and he'd spent an agonizing morning in the dentist's waiting room, clutching his throbbing jaw and praying for a dropped appointment. Two thousand dollars and a wad of medical gauze later, he'd emerged sporting a root canal and four fillings in the bottom of his mouth.
He'd been hiding Louie that first year on the beat, grinding him to powder between molars and bicuspids. The constant shift and scrape between sips of coffee or bites of dog had been a comforting white noise as he walked or cruised his beat, a secondary heartbeat that assured him his secret was safe. As long as his teeth were in motion, his lips were sealed.
By the time Mac had recruited him for the lab seven years ago, all but one of his teeth were held together by silver putty paste and dental ingenuity, and more than half concealed tiny steel posts within their carefully reconstructed facades. The threat of Louie coming home to roost in the lab had been infinitesimal, or so he had thought, and his teeth and jaws had grown lax in the past few years. And then Sonny Sassone had waltzed into Mac's interrogation room with trace amounts of Paul Montenassi embedded in his flawless smile, and his iron grip on the past had faltered.
That had been the beginning of the end, now that he thought about it. Sonny had invaded the life he had made for himself beyond the shadows cast by Louie and his father, a rapacious, grinning pestilence who had brought darkness and misery in his wake on a whiff of Drakar Noir. Stella and Mac and Flack had been in the room with him, and little more than a year later, their worlds had collapsed with the unforgiving abruptness of a supernova. Stella had found the wolf in sheep's clothing and escaped his snare only because she had the balls to slice her fingertips with a razor blade and pump three rounds into his heartless chest; Mac had nearly blown up alongside Flack and seen his protégé come back to the lab in a bodybag, burned beyond recognition; and Flack, Flack had been lain bare and was still trying to put the pieces together again even though there would always be one missing now, a piece of his gut that the surgeon had taken as his pound of flesh.
Flack's fingers were still searching for that missing piece, groping and fumbling blindly for what he knew should be there. Danny could see them in his mind's eye, kneading the curve between his last rib and the jut of his hipbone. Sometimes, he would catch fleeting glimmers of confusion in Flack's eyes as he squatted over a DB or secured a suspect's apartment for a search, dazed and bewildered as his fingers sought out smooth skin and found only divots and runnelled, wattled flesh.
Where am I? his face would say, where have I gone? Then Flack would catch him looking, and his expression would smooth to a scrupulous blankness. He was Humpty Dumpty, in pursuit of a piece the king's men had carried away in tribute.
Oh, yeah? Sonny jeered, but it was listless, as though his subconscious mind no longer had the energy to render a true-to-life representation. Where does that leave you? If your pal over there is Humpty Dumpty tyin' one on, who're you?
That was easy, Danny thought as he took a sip of beer that tasted of sawdust. That left him with a brother who seldom recognized him and broken dolls wearing his friends' faces. Each of them tried to pretend that everything was still okay, but he could see the hairline fractures beneath the skin, the bruises beneath the eyes that Stella's makeup didn't quite cover. He doubted any of them were sleeping worth a shit. He knew he wasn't. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw Louie's ruined face or Aiden's fleshless teeth, perfect even in the rigors of death and hideously white against the charred blackness of her skull. Even the normally imperturbable Hawkes was subdued and wan and rough around the edges.
They're all eggmen, he thought stupidly. Guess that makes me the fuckin' walrus. Koo-koo-ga-choo. He laughed, a leaden bark that held no amusement whatsoever, and the occupant of a nearby stool, a leathery barfly with a map of Staten Island etched into his cheeks and the bridge of his nose, spared him a rheumy, sidelong glower and put another stool between them. Danny took another pull of beer.
As for who that made him, that was easy, too. He was the walrus, or maybe he was the idiot peasant left in the wake of the royal horses as they departed the scene on the sound of thunder, standing in the dust and the bits of shell and the yellow pool of yolk. Maybe he was the guy left to pick up the pieces when everyone else got tired of playing cop. He stood in the dust cloud in his leather jerkin, and when no one was looking, he squatted in the dirt and picked up the mess.
Or if that analogy didn't work, maybe he was Little Bo Peep in a jockstrap. Only he couldn't find his trusty shepherd's crook, and some dirty-fighting bastard had blinded him. His sheep had been scattered, but one by one, they had all come home again, battered and scarred and sometimes missing tufts of wool, but blessedly alive and sturdy. All but one.
That one had always been stubborn, more mule than timid sheep, but that was why he had loved him best. Now that same willfulness that had so endeared him to Danny and made him one of the best cops to ever put on the blue threatened to overwhelm him. The wounds he was hiding beneath his button-downs and his barbed tongue were infected, and the infection was spreading. It was in his gut and his eyes now, simmering with wet, virulent heat, and he suspected that it was stretching greedy, feverish tendrils in the direction of his heart.
You've got it backwards, Dan, said Louie. The sickness didn't start in his gut and spread from there. It started in his heart. It's been incubatin' there since he was sixteen. Maybe it started in the interrogation room when he was holdin' up his balls for the camera, or maybe it happened when he was sittin' in a church pew and tryin' to come to grips with the realization that his family was forever short by one. Either way, it took root then and buried itself deep.
Bein' a cop made it easier. Catchin' dirtbags and perverts and skels was his antibiotic, and as long as he could right somebody else's wrong, it was all okay. His sister might not be here no more, but he'd make sure somebody else's was. It was his way of makin' amends. A life saved for a life lost. Then Lessing blew him almost to Kingdom Come, and the infection that had been sleepin' in his heart roused itself and spread to his vulnerable places, which were all of 'em, thanks to that prick and his dirty bomb.
It might not have been so bad even then, 'cept he was laid up in the hospital with no way to keep it at bay. All he could do was fuckin' lie there with a tube in his johnson and listen to his piss dribble into a plastic bladder danglin' at the edge of his bed. He got to lie there while the nurses and orderlies handled him like a slab of breathin' meat, and lemme tell you, Dan, my man, when you're lyin' there with an orderly's gloved hand shoved up the crack'a your ass wearin' a loofah the texture of steel wool, you do a whole lotta thinkin'. It don't take no genius to know what he thought about. She was fourteen years old and thirteen years dead.
Danny was sure Flack's parents thought about her, too. That would explain why they never turned up to see him at the hospital even though both Mac and Stella had called half a dozen times. As far as they were concerned, he'd been thirteen years dead, too, buried at the same time and in the same hole as his sister in a ceremony they never bothered to attend.
Danny nursed his drink and Flack nursed his, and as the hours passed and the shadows lengthened, Flack trudged from his booth to the bar and back again, clutching steins of ale and longnecks and Manhattans. He never spared him so much as a cursory glance on these treks, just shouldered his way to the bar, propped his elbows on the smooth, damp-ringed wood, and called his order to the barkeep.
After the third visit, the barkeep sidled down the bar, ratty towel slung haphazardly over his shoulder. "Hey, buddy," he said diffidently. "Is your pal all right?" He flushed and studied the gleaming tap of his guinness dispenser, as though he'd committed an act of gross impertinence by asking.
"Why you askin'?" Danny responded carefully.
The barkeep's mortified flush intensified, and he snatched the towel from his shoulder and began to dust the bar in sloppy, ineffectual circles. "'S nothin' and none'a my business, and I shouldn'ta asked," he mumbled quickly. "I dunno. Shit," he finished eloquently, and retreated down the bar with a lopsided, apologetic shrug.
Danny knew what he meant. Flack liked drinks with the team after work, but he'd never been a boozer. It was three or four longnecks, maybe a beer and a cocktail or a couple of shots. He never got so wasted that he couldn't walk or talk, and it was a rare night that he made more than three trips to the bar. Danny had been here going on two hours, and Flack had been here three times. God knew how long Flack had been here before he showed up, and only God and the bartender knew how many pints he'd downed. He thought about asking the latter, but decided against it. He didn't want to draw any more attention to Flack than Flack already had.
He wasn't surprised that the barkeep had noticed the change in pattern; the old guy was an ex-cop, and he'd been minding the bar for fifteen years. It was his way of staying close to the job since turning in his shield, and he was usually on the bar when they came in. Now he just had to pray that Mac didn't notice. If he caught wind that Flack was down here giving his liver a therapeutic booze bath, the whole business about being off-the-record would fly right out the window.
Maybe it's just a one-time thing, he thought with quiet desperation.
Only one way to find out, Louie suggested.
Danny fortified himself with a swallow of beer and squared his shoulders. "Hey, buddy," he called to the bartender, who was pouring a jigger of bourbon for a cop who had just come in off the beat. "C'mere."
The bartender finished pouring the shot and ambled over, the neck of heavy glass decanter clutched in one beefy hand. "What can I do for ya?"
Danny jerked his chin in the direction of Flack's booth. "My friend there been comin' in here and drinkin' like that all the time?"
The bartender spared Flack a discreet glance and leaned forward, elbows propped on the bar. "Naw, I don't think so. Last time I remember seein' him in here was-," He stopped to consider. "-A couple'a weeks ago with you. "Yeah, yeah. That was it. Ya came in an hour before last call."
Danny nodded, and the knot of tension that had been massing in his chest at the thought of Flack becoming a falling-down drunk released with an audible crackle of tendon. "Thanks. And hey, I'll have another one of these." He held up his empty bottle.
"Sure thing," the bartender said, and reached beneath the bar for another beer.
That was good. That was somethin'. Whatever was eating Flack, he wasn't helping it along with the demon drink. One less thing he had to hide from Mac, who had taken to watching Flack more closely than ever since Danny's confession. Stella was, too, and between the two of them, Flack couldn't take a dump without one of them watching him from the corner of their eye. It would have-did-driven him crazy, but Flack appeared not to notice the scrutiny, or if he did, he gave a great show of not giving a shit. He came on shift, did his sworn duty as an officer of the State of New York, and went home again without saying a word to anyone beyond what was required by the job at hand.
He's just tyin' one on, is all, he told himself with dizzy relief, and took a long, cooling swallow of beer. Hell, I would, too, if I got wind that the higher-ups were sendin' another detective onto my turf so soon after I got back on the job. He probably sees it as a threat to his position and a knock on his ability to do his job.
Shit, it probably was, at least the latter. The fatcats at One Police Plaza had gone soft without the streets to keep them hard and lean, and because they'd gone soft, they assumed everyone else was, too. That's why they were so quick to yank a cop off the streets after an accident and swaddle him in layers of psychobabble bullshit. That was their cure-all for everything from flesh wounds to being stabbed in the head by your wife when you came home and found her blowin' some crackhead while takin' it up the ass from his partner in crime. It was all a bunch of useless ass-covering as far as he and the other rank-and-file were concerned. The best cure for what ailed a wounded cop was another shift, another shot at getting a scumbag off the street.
His relief lasted until Flack's fifth trip to the bar, when he returned to his seat with a boilermaker. He had also, Danny noticed with sinking, sour-mouthed dismay, acquired an appreciable list. Danny watched him weave his way back to his booth, body wobbling as it searched for its displaced center of gravity. He sat down with a graceless flop, and the boilermaker sloshed onto his hand.
"Fuck," Flack told the bland surface of his table. The table said nothing.
"Shit." The word was heavy and gritty on his tongue, and bitter as partially dissolved aspirin.
The barkeep was on the periphery of his vision. "Hey, uh, buddy," came the hesitant summons, and Danny smelled spearmint gum and stale cigarettes.
"Yeah?" He didn't turn around. He kept watching Flack, who held the boilermaker in both hands and took dainty, unsteady sips, a toddler with a bowl of hot soup.
"Hey, look, I don't mean to be an asshole, and I, uh, I appreciate the job you guys do for the city and alla that, but I'm gonna have to cut your pal there off. He's a great guy from what I've talked to him, but he's three sheets to the wind goin' on four, and I can't afford to have him stirrin' up trouble."
"He ain't gonna cause any trouble," Danny murmured. "But don't worry about it. I'll take care'a him from here on out. You probably did him a favor."
"Hey, thanks, buddy. I hope there ain't no hard feelin's when he sobers up."
Danny grabbed his half-empty beer and slid off the stool. Flack was still staring at the tabletop when he got there, seemingly mesmerized by his distorted reflection in the puddle of water and spilled booze on the table. He didn't look up at Danny's approach. Danny wasn't even sure he was aware of his presence until Flack spoke.
"Fuck off," he said. "I told you I don't have nothin' to say to you."
"And yet, here you are, talkin' away," Danny said breezily, and sat down opposite him.
"Real fuckin' cute," Flack muttered. He wasn't quite slurring yet, but the boundaries between words were muzzy and indistinct, as though he were teetering on the brink of sleep or unconsciousness.
"The ladies seem to think so."
Danny tried again. "So, uh, the headshrinkers done with you yet? Man, I remember when they were on my ass after the Minhas thing, you know? Like fuckin' termites on wood pulp. Bastards wanted to know everything, asked about my mother, my Pop, when I was potty-trained, for Chrissakes. Only thing they didn't ask about was the first time I got a hard-on, and I'm thinkin' that was only 'cause they didn't have time. You get the chick psychiatrist? Nice tits, but her hips were too broad, and that perfume she was wearin' smelled like dog piss."
"Are you fuckin' done with the heart-to-heart?" Flack snarled suddenly. "'Cause if you are, I'd like to get back to my drink." He picked up his boilermaker and took a sloppy, gulping swallow. Liquid dribbled from the corner of his mouth in a glistening trickle.
Just like Louie, he thought with swooning horror as he watched the trail creep sluggishly down his chin and drip onto the tabletop. Louie's always droolin' out his drink now, too, only it's water or milk now instead'a Jager or Beam. By the time dinner's over, his chin is coated in the stuff, and sometimes there mashed potatoes and chewed peas on there, too.
His eyes are like Louie's, too, vacant and glazed, open, but not seein' anythin'. Nothin' in this world anyway.
"Are you sleepin' all right?" Danny asked, and his gaze flickered over Flack's red-rimmed, scalded eyes.
Flack lowered his glass and wiped the corner of his mouth with three unsteady fingers. "Why you wanna know? You gonna come over and sing me a fuckin' lullaby if I ain't?" He smirked, but there was no playfulness in it. It was hard and cruel and ugly, a tight spasm of his normally soft lips.
"Dammit, Flack, why you gotta be such a fuckin' asshole, huh? I'm just tryin' to help you here."
"Yeah?" That ugly smirk again. "Well, maybe I don't need your help."
"The fuck you don't," Danny spat, and slammed his palm on the table hard enough to make the glasses rattle. "Look at you. You're a fuckin' mess. Your clothes are hangin' offa ya, you look like you haven't eaten in days or slept in weeks, and you're fuckin' wasted."
"All right," Flack said with an insouciant shrug. "Maybe I don't want your help."
Danny snorted. "Frankly, I don't give a damn what you want right about now."
A brittle bark of laughter. "Yeah, there seems to be a lot of that goin' around lately," he muttered, and quaffed more of his drink.
Danny fought the urge to slap the glass from his hand. "Jesus fuck, Flack," he said in disgust. "What the fuck is wrong with you? You think you're the only guy who ever lost somebody they loved? Louie-,"
"Louie ain't nothin' like-like…" He stopped and clenched his jaw and fist in unison.
"Like your sister?" Danny finished for him? "Naw, he ain't. Your sister found peace. My brother's a livin' corpse, like somethin' out of the Dawn of the fuckin' Dead. 'Least you got good memories. Mine? They get wiped out every time I walk into that room and smell shit 'cause the nurses never bothered to change him before I got there. I've changed him myself a couple'a times, and it's a special kind of hell, changin' the brother who used to change you. So don't you fuckin' try to tell me that you cornered the fuckin' market."
"You don't know shit, Messer, so do yourself a favor and shut up." Flack's hands were curled into white-knuckled fists on the table.
"What you gonna do if I don't? You gonna hit me again?" he challenged.
"Shut up," Flack repeated, and a hand slithered bonelessly from the table to massage his side.
Maybe it was adrenaline, or maybe it was the undercurrent of raw emotion that eddied around the booth in a palpable, pulsating wave, but the now-familiar gesture irritated him out of all proportion. "Will you fuckin' stop doin' that?" he exclaimed. If your side still hurts you so damn bad, why don't you fuckin' swallow your pride and take a goddamned pi-,"
"Because I can't remember her!" Flack bellowed, and the din of relaxed conversation around them came to an abrupt and complete halt. Several curious heads turned in their direction, and from behind the bar came the furtive clink of shifting glassware as the bartender busied himself with rearranging his inventory.
Flack was staring at him, eyes wide and anguished behind the sheen of alcohol. His chest was heaving, and his breath was labored and desperate, as if he were on the verge of tears, a monumental revelation, or both. He knew he should feel guilty for inspiring such a look of unguarded misery on his best friend's face, but he could feel only a giddy, drunken relief.
His eyes ain't like Louie's anymore, lifeless and dull and painted into their sockets. What he's feelin' may hurt, but at least he's feelin'.
"I can't remember her when I take the pills," he repeated softly, and the hum of incidental conversation resumed, timorous in the beginning, as though they expected another outburst, but growing in confidence when none was forthcoming. "When I woke up in the hospital after-I couldn't remember her face. It was a total blank. I could remember her lavender socks and the red-hooded sweatshirt she used to wear all the time. It was her favorite, and she kept wearin' it even after she outgrew it. But I couldn't remember her face. Not a goddamned thing. And that's fucked up, Danny; that's so fuckin' fucked up because her face was mine. Only a little more, you know…" Flack gestured vaguely at the contours of his face.
"Feminine?" he offered cautiously. The last thing he needed was for a drunk and emotional Flack to decide he was leering at his dead sister.
"Yeah," Flack agreed. "Yeah, I guess." He scrubbed his face with his palms. "She had my face, and I couldn't remember her."
Oh, fuck, he thought bleakly as Flack stared at him in thin-lipped silence, eyes beseeching and raw and full of unshed grief and anguish. He's askin' me to help him even if he don't know it, and I don't think I can. Where's Mac when you need 'im, or Hawkes?
He found himself looking past Flack to the other patrons of the bar, hoping against to see a familiar face or profile, but there was no one. There was only him and his stupid, muddled brain and Flack staring at him with clouded eyes. He cleared his throat, drummed a nonsense staccato on the table, and pushed his glasses onto the bridge of his nose.
"You were doped out the ass after that surgery," he offered lamely. "I doubt you remembered your own name there for a while."
Flack snorted. Yeah, well, maybe," he said. His voice was grating and thick. "But then I got home and took those fuckin' pills, and I couldn't, I couldn't remember her, either."
"The worst part?" Don continued as though he hadn't heard. "The worst part was that I liked not remembering, not havin' that hot spot beneath my skin, remindin' me that somethin' was missin'. It didn't hurt, and I was afraid I could get used to not rememberin', so I flushed the pills down the toilet."
Danny took a sip of beer to drown his inadequacy and groped for the right words. "There's nothin' wrong with getting on with your life. It's not forgettin'; it's lettin' go."
"No," Flack said resolutely. "Naw. That's semantics and psychobabble bullshit. It's forgettin', and I ain't gonna do her that way. She was a fuckin' baby, and I'm all she's got to look after her."
"My parents forgot about her," he snarled. "Three months after her funeral, I came home, and everything was gone. Her room had been stripped to the walls, and her chair at the dinner table was gone. Fuck, they even took the pictures offa the walls, and there were these big, blank spaces, like unfilled cavities. My Pop took her things to the Goodwill and the Salvation Army one day, and that was that. Like she never existed. If I tried to talk about her, I got the silent treatment."
Danny stared at the fascinating grain of the tabletop, stunned by the onslaught. It was too much, this baring of Flack's private soul, too scalding when his own soul was riddled with scars and hairline fractures.
Stop. Please, stop talking. Just stop, he thought miserably, and curled his fingers around the bottle in front of him in the fervent hope that its coldness would penetrate the numbness that was settling over him from the ankles up, Novocain injected through the soles of his feet.
This is what you bought when you opened that box, Louie said, and while there was compassion is his voice, there was no pity. It's yours now, so sack up and take it like a man.
"They wouldn't let me bury her," Flack said suddenly, and his voice strained with the effort of the words. "I was sixteen-plenty fuckin' old enough to do one last thing for her-but you know what my old man said to me?" Flack leaned forward and came within a hair's breadth of toppling his boilermaker. There were no tears, but his eyes were wet, and he was blinking rapidly. "He fuckin'-," He swallowed with an audible click and started again. "He fuckin' told me I'd 'done enough'. Fuckin' prick. I shoulda fuckin' carried her anyway. I shoulda fuckin' dared him to stop me. But I just sat there like a fuckin' pussy, too worried about what he thought of me to even cry for her."
"What kinda worthless son of a bitch don't even have the balls to cry for his own sister?" he asked, hands opening and closing in time to his ragged breathing.
But you have been cryin' for her. Every day for thirteen years, he thought, but all he said was, "You, uh, you wanna get outta here?"
Flack blinked. For a moment, Danny was sure he was going to demur in favor of his boilermaker, but then he took a shuddering breath and muttered, "Yeah, okay." He drained the contents of his glass in one long, tremulous swallow and heaved himself to his feet by dint of the table. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and wobbled towards the door. Danny followed unobtrusively in his wake, hands thrust into the shallow pockets of his jeans.
Outside the bar, Flack stood on the sidewalk beneath the green neon sign, swaying slightly, face upturned to the sickly light, eyes closed and mouth open to reveal moist, pink tongue and glistening, white teeth.
"Hey," Danny said softly. "You all right there?"
Flack slowly opened his eyes. "Yeah, I'm good. I just needed some air, is all." But his voice was strengthless and cramped, as though a heavy poultice had settled on his chest.
"All right, then. No problem." Danny patted him on the back. "You just stand there and suck all the wind you want."
"Fuck you, Messer," Flack retorted with fragile amiability, and he started towards home.
Danny shadowed him, mindful not to crowd, but determined to see him home. He was piss-drunk and in no shape to be alone. His feet were unsteady on the solid sidewalk, and more than once, he stumbled over unseen obstacles. Always he walked with his chin tilted skyward and his lips parted, and Danny was reminded of a boy awaiting the tasteless caress of a Communion wafer on his tongue.
They had walked two blocks in the shadowy netherland between night and the beckoning, lascivious fingers of light from the all-night delis and porn shops when Flack said, "She was always talkin'. Sometimes, it was nervous chatter, but most'a the time, it was 'cause she was curious. She was always askin' Ma and Pop and me questions, this little red robin with lavender socks that was always underfoot. I shoulda let her, ya know? But I was an arrogant little prick asshole, and I was always tellin' her to fuck off and go away, and then one day, she did."
And then Flack was on his haunches on the dirty, gritty sidewalk, hands on his knees and head tucked to his chest. A great, whooping gasp, and then, "Aw, fuck. Fuck." A coughing bark, another choking gasp, and then he moaned.
He's gonna be sick, Danny thought dismally.
Yeah, he is, Louie agreed gravely. But not from the booze. Not yet. That's for the mornin'. This is him tryin' to hold down what's been buried in his gut since the day they put his other half in the ground. It's bitter and painful, and there ain't no home remedy to take the edge off. It'd be a lot easier if he'd let it come, but he won't. Dumb, stubborn bastard's gonna fight it 'til his insides burst. As usual.
The as usual was perversely comforting, and Danny's lips twitched in a fleeting smile as he crouched beside Flack on the sidewalk. This close, Danny could smell the piquant, furniture-varnish reek of alcohol and see minute beads of perspiration in his hairline. He was trembling, and his teeth were bared in a furious, seething grimace. Now and then, his teeth would part and his stomach would tense, and a desperate, shuddering rush of air would escape him. Unh. Unh. Unh. Denial and grudging release.
"Hey." He rested his hand on Don's feverish nape. "Hork if you gotta, man. This sidewalk ain't gonna be none the worse for wear."
An aborted squawk of laughter escaped Flack, and he twisted away from the unwanted intimacy of his hand. "Don', Don'," he said thickly, and tottered drunkenly on his heels. He steadied himself, one hand splayed on the grimy concrete.
"All right," Danny said helplessly.
Unh. Unh. Unh. A wounded dog bleeding to death on the pavement.
"C'mon. Let's get you home. A hangover is better in your own bathroom."
He gripped Flack beneath the elbow and pulled him to his feet. He expected resistance or a slurred demand to be let go, but the only sign of life from him was the constant, stuttering moan. Unh. Unh. Unh. He swayed and then slumped against him, heavy and panting.
Danny blinked, nonplussed at the sudden capitulation, and then his arm slithered around Flack's chest in a clumsy gesture of comfort. He could feel Flack's heartbeat in his forearm, a thudding pulse that was much too fast. Flack groped for him and clutched his wrist with panicky tightness.
"Can't," he moaned. "I can't."
Danny had no idea what he meant, but he nodded and tightened his grip. "Okay. Well, you don't gotta. It's just you'n me out here."
As if to prove him a liar, a passerby wandered by and gawked, head swiveling to take in the sight of two grown men embracing on the sidewalk in the middle of the night.
"What're you lookin' at pal?" Danny snarled, and the curious face disappeared abruptly.
That's what I fuckin' thought, he sneered at the rapidly dwindling figure. Next time it might be your ass he's pullin' from a burning building.
His moment of smug triumph was interrupted by Flack disentangling himself and stumbling away. "Get offa, me. I'm fuckin' all right. Go cop your feel somewhere else."
Danny scowled in spite of himself. "Feel? What you got to feel 'sides a hairy-ass chest?"
Flack didn't answer. In fact, he didn't speak at all until they were within sight of his building, a genteelly shabby high-rise with tiny apartments carved inside like pockets of honeycomb. "A year before she died, I told her I wished she'd never been born," he announced to no one in particular.
Danny's stomach plummeted into his shoes, and he closed his eyes and wished with all his might that Dr. Phil would magically appear and deliver him from this unenviable position by virtue of his college degrees and his patron saint of Oprah Winfrey, but when he opened his eyes again, there was no delivering angel with a Texas drawl and a shiny, bald head, just Flack gazing at the twinkling lights of his building and tilting his chin heavenward in search of an absolution that was never coming.
"Don, I'm sure she knew you didn't mean that," he muttered awkwardly, and ran his fingers through his hair."
"Oh, she knew, all right. That's why in that house, she-sh-she-,"
He never found out what Diana Elizabeth Flack had done in the haunted house that lived and grew vibrant in his best friend's imagination, because in the next instant, Flack pitched forward onto his hands and knees and vomited into the gutter with a rancid, wet splatter. Flack's back was to him, and so he was mercifully spared the sight of clotted puke as it splashed onto the asphalt and dribbled into the gutter, but he could hear it, and his own stomach heaved and slalomed in sympathy.
Even when he's sick, he's lookin' out for the good citizens of New York, he thought stupidly as he watched Flack struggle with a spasm that pulled his face to within inches of the age-blackened sewer grate. Bet that heavin's gotta be hell on his stomach.
The retching was violent and endless and continued long after his tortured insides had emptied. The dry heaves were worse than the wet splashes, guttural groans pulled from his gut, razing tender flesh as they came. Eventually, the fit passed, and Flack clung weakly to a nearby fire hydrant, swiping his mouth with the back of his trembling hand and gasping for lungfuls of the humid night air.
Danny managed to get him home without further incident, though Flack was nearly dead weight as he led him up the stairs with one arm slung around his shoulders for support. The retching had stilled his tongue, and now the only sound he made was that terrible unh unh unh. He was simultaneously unbearably heavy and perversely light as Danny half-carried him down the narrow hallway to his apartment, as though his insides had been hollowed out and filled with sawdust.
Or straw, his mind supplied helpfully. I'm walkin' with the damn scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz.
That ain't a Grimm's fairy tale, Louie pointed out.
Who gives a fuck? he countered irritably. Works for me. 'Sides, when did you become a Rhodes Scholar of fuckin' literature?
"We're almost there," he reassured Flack as he fumbled in the latter's pockets for his keys. "I hope nobody from your floor comes around right now, 'cause it sure as fuck looks like I'm givin' you a handjob."
Flack's only response was a phlegmatic, inarticulate grunt. "I was such an asshole to her," he told Danny dully. When I was ten, my Pop took me to a ballgame, but he didn't take her. Guess it was his attempt at father-son bonding. Anyways, she was upset, so I promised I'd buy her a box'a Cracker Jacks from the park. I did, too. Ponied up with my own pocket money."
"What's the matter with that?" Danny asked absently as he shouldered open the door.
"I ate 'em all on the way home."
"Oh." Such a useless, idiotic syllable, but he had exhausted his meager store of comforting platitudes, and his bones were leaden and stiff inside his skin.
He dragged Flack inside with the intention of depositing him onto the couch and collapsing into the nearest armchair, but the familiar surroundings galvanized Flack, and he wobbled free of his supporting arm and tottered into the dark kitchen.
Danny groped for the light switch. "Hey, what you doin'?" he asked. His fingers grazed worn plastic, and he flipped the switch.
The front hallway and part of the small living room were illuminated in milky, yellow light, and if he squinted, he could see Flack rummaging in a cupboard over the sink.
"What're you doin?" he repeated suspiciously when he heard the telltale clink of jostling glassware. "What're you lookin' for?"
When no answer was forthcoming, he crept into the kitchen, hands out and fingers questing like a blind man's. He bumped into the doorframe with his shoulder, and he planted his hand on the knobbled stucco of the wall and crept eastward, a pale spider in search of prey. His fingers found plastic, hard and smooth as a beetle's carapace, and a moment later, the kitchen was awash in light.
Flack was standing at the counter, opening a bottle of scotch.
"Oh, hey. I don't think that's such a hot idea," Danny said dubiously. "You already left the first batch in the gutter out there."
"Yeah?" Flack croaked. "Well, I thought we established that I don't give a fuck what you think."
"All right, fine. Suit your fuckin' self, then." Danny raised his palms in surrender.
Flack smirked and took a gurgling swig of scotch.
Danny stuffed his hands into the pockets of his jeans and wandered into the living room. The air was close and stank of stale sweat, old newspapers, and the lingering scent of takeout grease. Three days' worth of newspapers were scattered over the small coffee table, along with six empty beer bottles. Diana Flack's ID was propped against one, still in its plastic evidence bag. Of the other personal effects, there was no sign.
Flack stumbled around him, still clutching the bottle of scotch. He shuffled to the couch, tossed a throw pillow aside, and sat down with an undignified flop. "What're you still doin' here?" he asked.
"I don't know," he answered honestly, and sat down in an armchair.
He was exhausted. A tension headache throbbed behind his eyes like an impacted tooth, and his eyes burned with the effort of seeing too much and not enough all at once. He rubbed his nape and rolled his shoulders to ease the simmering knot of tension between his shoulder blades. He groaned and let his head sag against the back of the chair. He had almost dozed off when Flack's voice startled him into grudging wakefulness.
"She was there in the hospital with me," he said.
Danny yawned and rubbed his eyes. "Who?"
"My sister. She came when I was…out. She was wearin' that little red-hooded sweatshirt. She came into the room, and she told me I could go with her now if I wanted. I didn't have to, but I could. Then she held my hand and said she'd wait while I made up my mind. Her hand was warm, and it fit just right, even though mine was bigger now." He took another pull of scotch. He was crying, but Danny suspected he was unaware of the tears streaming down his face.
"When I started to come to, I got excited because I could feel a hand, and I thought, I thought it was her, that she had followed me back somehow. When I opened my eyes, I was sure I'd see her lookin' down at me. But it was just fuckin' Mac." Flack's voice broke. It was bereft, almost accusatory.
"'S funny. I've been visitin' her grave four times a year for thirteen years and sayin' a rosary for her every Christmas, and it took me wakin' up in the hospital without her to realize that she was really-," His Adam's apple bobbed precariously. "-Really gone. If she existed anywhere in the fuckin' world, Diana woulda walked through fire to get to me, and when I woke up with Mac's pasty face lookin' down at me, that's when I finally understood she was dead."
There was a beat of absolute silence, and then Flack exploded. "Fuck!" he bellowed, and threw the bottle of scotch across the room. It struck the TV and shattered the dusty screen in a shower of glass and sparks. "Fuck!" he shouted again, and kicked the coffee table onto its side. The table upended with a portentous, creaking groan, and the beer bottles slid onto the floor and broke. Diana's ID slid slowly into the puddle of broken glass, where it lay, Diana smiling beatifically at her brother through thirteen lost years.
Do something, urged a voice inside his head, but he was unequipped to deal with the catastrophic emotional hemorrhage unfolding before him, and he could only sit rooted to his chair in stupefied silence.
Call Stella, prompted the voice. She'll know what to do.
And say what? Hey, Stel, this is Messer. Listen, I poked in somethin' that was none'a my business, and now Flack's losin' his fuckin' mind. He's taken out the tube and the coffee table, and I'm afraid that if he remembers there's a Glock on his hip, his brains might be next. You mind comin' over to help me clean up the mess?
"I want my fuckin' sister," Flack screamed at him, as if he thought Danny had spirited her away for spite.
Of course he does, Louie said dolefully. Family's who you go to when the wounds get too deep. You mighta thought I hated your guts for all these years, but you still came runnin' when the chips were down. Blood calls to blood, and even death can't quench that longin'. If she was here, she'd be the one fussin' over him and comin' over to fix his dressin's and nag him into doin' his rehab, and cookin' him dinner instead of lettin' him eat shitty takeout. She'd be the one he calls when the nightmares awaken him from a dead sleep and leave him retchin' over the side of the bed. But she ain't here, and he feels what he's missin', the phantom limb that ain't never comin' back.
"I want my fuckin' sister," Flack repeated. Entreating and dazed, a little boy looking for his mother in the midst of a dark and terrible wood.
"I know you do," Danny managed. The lump in his throat made it difficult to breathe. "I know."
He did, too. Every time he saw Louie, slouched and drooling in a chair in the sunroom that grew human vegetables, he had the same thought, was overcome by the same helpless sense of monumental injustice. He wanted his brother back, wanted to see him swagger from the hospital in a stolen leather jacket, with a Lucky Strike dangling from the corner of his mouth. He wanted the pat on the back and the ruffling of his hair, and with every day that passed without those things, his rage deepened.
Flack sank to his knees in the middle of the wreckage, heedless of the shards of broken glass. He groped for his sister's ID and picked it up, smoothing away drops of flat beer and spilled scotch.
"Shit," he slurred, and as his fingers curled around the ID, he began to cry, hard, wracking sobs wrenched from his gut. It was loud and ugly, and Danny was struck with the notion that he was performing an indecent act by bearing witness to this private bloodletting.
So do something, asshole, demanded the voice. Be there for him. He's your best fuckin' friend. Mac, the crusty, hardass Marine managed to suck it up and be there for you.
But he wasn't Mac. Nowhere close. If he were Mac, he never would have let it get this far. He turned and went into the kitchen, pushing his glasses onto the bridge of his nose and telling himself that Flack wouldn't want him to see him like that anyway. He resolutely ignored the leering voice of Sonny Sassone at the base of his brain, calling him a coward and a pussy.
When he came back to the living room a few minutes later with a broom, dustpan mop, and bucket, Flack was still weeping, but it was quieter now. Danny wordlessly set the bucket down and began sweeping up the largest shards. Flack sat on his heels in the middle of the wreckage, his sister's ID still fisted in his hand.
"I don't know why I didn't go with her," he said.
That's the thing, buddy, Danny thought as he swept pieces of the broken scotch bottle into the dustpan, I think you did. A long time ago.
But he couldn't say that to his friend who was sitting on a pile of broken glass and splintered wood with a picture of his dead sister in his hand, so he said nothing. He just kept sweeping long after the carpet was clean, and whenever Flack's free hand stole to his side to massage the wound there, Danny knew what he was looking for.
He also, he thought grimly as he dragged the bristles across the carpet, knew where it had gone, and the old nursery rhyme was right. All the king's horses and all the king's men would never put Humpty Dumpty together again.